You can feel the excitement bubbling over by now, surely. Twitter has been abuzz with conversations, articles appear every day about the players (some of whom don’t even play for the USWNT!), and we’ve had some of the most incredible build-up for a women’s World Cup yet.1 The fact that the World Cup received at least a mention in the middle of men’s football programming was already more than some of us had expected,2 but then—on the same day as the men’s Champions League final, when eyes were almost definitely glued to the screen—Nike released that ad.
Are you ready?
The political and social justice issues that are wrapped up in sports (just as they are in every other facet of life) are pretty hard to avoid,3 but they’re starkly noticeable any time we discuss the women’s game. This World Cup has already seen its fair share of tension before the players have even walked onto the pitch with Ada Hegerberg, the winner of the first Women’s Ballon d’Or Winner last year, refusing to play for Norway as a result of the massive disparity in conditions and recognition between the men’s and women’s game. Her fight is similar to the USWNT’s one against U.S. Soccer this year, and just another chapter in this incredibly frustrating saga that the world’s best players have had to engage in to be treated equally by sporting federations around the world.4 And all this assumes these women play consistent games in leagues that aren’t constantly on the verge of teetering into non-existence.
Are you ready?
The magic of the World Cup is in its enormity. First-time watchers become die-hard fans because of World Cups. People who barely watch the sport sit down with people who haven’t missed a league game in seasons. For the women’s game, the former eclipse the latter in numbers, and while that’s a damning statement about the level of access and visibility afforded to women’s leagues, it’s also probably why women’s World Cups are so much more exciting for so many of us.
For a lot of us, there are very few ways to legally watch women’s league games in North America and Europe, let alone from the rest of the world. The World Cup introduces us to new faces who will become household names, and lets us relearn all the reasons we fell in love with players who are coming back to our screens after four years.
And after every World Cup, there’s the perennial hope that this time, it’ll become just that much easier to keep watching these players in their domestic leagues.
Are you ready?
Nike is doing more than most brands5 to raise awareness around women athletes, sure, but there’s still a cold cynicism that runs through all marketing campaigns that celebrate athletes around the World Cup and then forget about them after. And while they were able to sweep us away on an epic journey with a three-minute clip,6 it doesn’t take too much to scrape past the veneer and see the grime. In this case, Nike’s rival Adidas have announced they will be paying out equal bonuses to any Adidas-sponsored players on the winning team. As far as we can tell, Nike has yet to announce the same. Nike is also currently embroiled in a scandal about the way they treat athletes who become pregnant. Not exactly a good look for the company waving this fierce feminist ad.
It’s also notable that this fantastic ad launched on the first day of Pride month: usually a thirty-day fiesta of brand after brand and (men’s) team after team7 paying nothing more than lip service to the existence of queer people. It’s hard to avoid the parallels between the usual bout of rainbow capitalism and the sudden surge in ads about a sport that none of these brands do anything to support.
Are you ready?
When I saw the ad, dressed head-to-toe in Liverpool gear and waiting for the men’s Champions League final to start, my first thought was of relief. Nike had—either out of sensitivity or to avoid the outrage—managed to make an entire ad about football without Cristiano Ronaldo in it. I left the house with a spring in my step at the thought of being able to watch the ad again and again without misgivings, without anger, without yet another reminder of how little non-cis male fans matter to this sport we love.
The feeling lasted until just before halftime when the news about Neymar’s rape allegation broke. Amidst the horror and anguish for all my fellow fans who were seeing the news in the middle of what should have been a wonderful unifying game8 (or sitting, immobile, under soul-crushing pain; sorry Spurs fans), I remembered the ad and Neymar’s face in the middle of it all.
I get why Neymar is there. I get what Nike is—very ham-fistedly—trying to do by having Neymar on his couch playing women’s FIFA and by having Alex Scott shouting instructions to Pique and Coutinho.
But in the light of the Neymar allegations (and his subsequent actions releasing private chats and intimate photos), the cheery artifice of the ad crumbles the minute we see his face. All we’re left with is a reminder of the harshest reality of this sport: the people it protects are the people in power. That protection almost never extends to the women this ad is celebrating.
Are you ready?
There’s a promise in between frames, set to the extremely cliched sounds of Joan Jett.9 There’s a promise of a world that is tantalisingly close and eons away, all at the same time. Lieke Martens and Asisat Oshoala going head-to-head while a billion people watch and Alex Scott coaching Barcelona to victory in a match where Steven Gerrard is playing feel pretty out there, but the other glimpses the ad offers us don’t feel anywhere near as far-fetched. Cameras in the French locker rooms as they celebrate a win, Wang Shuang greeted by thousands of fans when she lands. And the most domestic scene of them all: an entire family (one that looks incredibly like mine) sat around the TV in the kitchen, begging Fran Kirby to score.
When we talk about what equality looks like, the conversation has to start with equal pay, equal recognition, and equal playing conditions. But in the end, we’re reaching for the world where we get to stay with a winning women’s team long after they’ve left the pitch, where the parades are as big and as jaw-dropping when they win the league, where an entire family crowds around a TV because no one can bear the thought of missing a moment of the game.
It’s not a question of us being ready. We are. We’ve been ready for years. The real question is, is everyone else?
1 We all smiled at that England squad announcement, didn’t we? Even when it was James Corden doing the announcing? And you’ve all seen the German ad that’s perfect (except the whole ‘women don’t have balls’ joke thing), right?
2 The bar is on the ground, folks.
3 Unless you’re a cis straight white man, in which case, avoiding literally everything becomes very easy!
4 Kudos to the Dutch for doing something right here.
5 “More than most brands” is such an awful sentence and I can’t believe capitalism has brought us here.
6 I’m refraining from commenting on the casting of an ethnically ambiguous kid in the main role, too, mostly because she was absolutely fantastic in the entire thing.
7 Women’s football continues to be a wonderful haven for queer everything, of course.
8 It was tactically interesting, everyone shut up.
9 We haven’t given a damn about our reputation in decades, folks. We definitely don’t give a damn about our reputations when it comes to playing football. There was a whole film about it and everything!